High above the loftiest peaks in the world, is the ancient land known as Tibet. For thousands of years a unique culture has flourished in some of the most remote mountain valleys of the world, and Tibet can claim to be the literal rooftop of the earth, with the average land being over 13,000 feet above sea level. The Tibetans were one of the last theocracies in the world, with the spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama being the nominal head of state for this vast Kingdom. Tibet was also the last Buddhist theocracy as well, and would probably still claim this title had the country not fallen under suzerainty of China in the 20th century. This invasion remains controversial to this day, with both Chinese and Tibetans claiming very opposing viewpoints of the historical connection between these two people. One thing is certain though, and that is that their is deep uncertainty whether this ancient culture will survive into the future unless the assimilating and repressive forces of change do not allow for greater freedom of the Tibetan people.
Located in the Ngari Region of Tibet, the Ruins of Guge Kingdom are the ancient summer palaces of the ancient Guge Kingdom of Tibet. While these ruins were once an imperial estate which fell into disrepair after the civil revolt and the invasion of the allied armies of eight foreign countries, the Guge kingdom also encountered civil strife and foreign attacks which fragmented the once prosperous state. However, the legendary kingdom hasn’t been totally lost as much can be learned about it from its remains.
Established in about the 10th century, the Guge Kingdom was founded by one branch of descendants of a nearby crumbled Kingdom. It was ruled by about 16 kings with armies of tens of thousands of soldiers during the over 700 years in which it flourished. Then in the 1660s, conflicts resulting from power disputes within the imperial family emerged which engendered restlessness in society and induced civil uprisings. To win power in the disordered state, the brother of the king asked the ruler of the neighboring country Ladakh (the present Kashmir) to send his army to help. This army overthrew and conquered the kingdom. Only years later was power returned to Tibet. During its lifetime the Guge Kingdom played an important part in the economic and cultural development of Tibet. The kingdom advocated Buddhism, and many versions of this religion were created here and their teachings were spread from here into the heart of Tibet. The kingdom also served as a major center for Tibet’s foreign trade.
The Ruins of Guge Kingdom now extend around the sides of a mountain more than 300 m. (984 ft.) high. Explorers have found over 400 rooms and 800 caves here, as well as some fortresses, secret paths, pagodas, arm storerooms, granaries and all kinds of burial places. Except for some temples, all the roofs of the rooms have collapsed, leaving only the walls. The ruins are surrounded by a city wall and a fortress marks each of the corners. Palaces, temples and local residences are distributed from the top to the bottom and only secret roads lead to the top, a layout designed to indicate the supremacy of the king and to ensure the safety of the palaces. Due to its great research value, the Ruins of Guge Kingdom have been listed under the first group of Cultural Relics of National Importance under the Protection of the State.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects of the Ruins are the five temples and palaces – the White Temple, Red Temple, Samsara Temple, Imperial Palace, and Assembly Palace. Many inscriptions, statues and murals are displayed inside these. The most complete and valuable artifacts remaining are the murals, which are mainly pictures of Sakyamuni, the king, queen, prince and other royal servants. Beside, in the sanctuary pictures of the cultivation of male and female Esoteric Buddhas can be found. The margins are painted with dozens of nude Dakinis. The colors and lines of the murals can be compared with those of the Mogao Caves in Dunhuang City, Gansu Province. Most of the statues here are golden and silver Buddhist statues, among these the Silver Eyes of Guge is of the highest achievement.
Tibetans are unique on the planet in that their national life is wholly dedicated to Buddhism. For them the Dharma is all in all. Their culture was laboriously transformed over the thousand-year period from Srong btsan sgam po (early seventh century) to the Great Fifth Dalai Lama (early seventeenth century) from a normally ethnocentric, warlike, imperialistic national culture to a universally Buddhicized spiritual, peaceful culture. Essentially ,they have been unilaterally disarmed for over 300 years. Their material development has been systematically neglected in favor of their spiritual development. For centuries, the main line item in the budget of the national government has been support of the monasteries and the studies and the practices of the monks and nuns. The wheel was purposely never used for transport, but only for generating prayers, the energy of OM MANI PADME HUM. Their rulers have been spiritual lineages of wisdom and compassion, triumphing over dynastic blood lineages.
Unlike Buddhists in other countries, Tibetans are remarkably eclectic and do not deny the validity of any school. Although they primarily follow the Vajrayana (also known as Mantrayana and Tantrayana) form of Buddhism, their acceptance of the early form of the religion is implicit in the strictly celibate monastic system imposed by the great reformist monk-teacher Tsongkhapa (1357-1419) and the importance given to the group of sixteen arhats and to moralistic stories of previous births of the Buddha known as jataka and avadana.
Although the idea of the guide teacher, or guru, is of Indian origin, and is of enormous importance in Hinduism and Jainism as well, it manifested in Tibet in unique ways. Almost every painting and applique in this exhibition includes one or more representations of monks, known as lamas, and mystics. Some paintings consist mostly of monks of a particular lineage responsible for transmitting a particular teaching. They share the surface of the work with gods and goddesses and we are left with no doubt that they have attained divine status. This idea of lineage, whereby a teaching is passed from one generation to the next (guru- parampara in Sanskrit), although not unknown in other cultures, is given extraordinary significance in Tibet. In no other Buddhist artistic tradition is the presence of the monk so ubiquitous as it is in the Tibetan. Nowhere else is the lama so central to both the temporal and spiritual life of a nation as in Tibet. In no other society did every family so willingly and proudly send a son or a daughter to take the monastic vow. Indeed, just as the landscape of Tibet is dominated by monastic rather than monarchical or militaristic architecture, so also is Tibetan society distinguished not by its kings and generals but by its great monk-teachers.
Early Tibetan Buddhist art was used to depict the life of Gautama Buddha in the Indian subcontinent in the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. Throughout Asia, Buddhism spread widely and with it its influence over Tibetan art and culture in Asia. The first traditions of Tibetan Buddhist art followed the practices of aniconic artwork, meaning that the use of Buddhist symbols and emblems to represent the Buddha and his travels and teachings without actually using a human form to represent the Buddha himself. This was the typical way that Tibetan Buddhist art was made until the first century CE, when the Buddha was finally represented in human appearance, which is still followed to this day. In every new country or region in Asia, where Buddhism went, Buddhist art followed its worshipers and artists as the faith developed in many different ways.
Among the many traditions of Buddhist art the three areas where the Tibetans have made the most significant contributions are mandalas, images of angry deities, and portraiture. Much has been written about mandalas and about the forms of terrifying deities, both of which figure prominently in Tibetan religion. The Tibetans also appear to have developed a special skill in transforming these extremely complex images into art with extraordinary finesse and expressiveness.
A Thangka is a painted or embroidered banner which was hung in a monastery or a family altar and carried by lamas in ceremonial processions. In Tibetan the word ‘than’ means flat and the suffix ‘ka’ stands for painting. The Thangka is thus a kind of painting done on flat surface but which can be rolled up when not required for display. The most common shape of a Thangka is the upright rectangular form. One does also find horizontal oblong banners influenced probably by the format of Chinese horizontal hand scrolls.
On the basis of techniques involved and materials used thangkas can be grouped into several categories. Generally they are divided into two broad categories: those which are painted (called bris-than in Tibetan) and those which are made of silk either by weaving or with embroidery called (gos-than).
Monks, listen to the parable of the raft. A man going on a journey sees ahead of him a vast stretch of water. There is no boat within the sight, and no bridge. To escape from the dangers of this side of the bank, he builds a raft for himself out of grass, sticks and branches. When he crosses over, he realizes how useful the raft has been to him and wonders if he should not lift it on his shoulders and take it away with him. If he did this, would he be doing what he should do? No.
Or, when he has crossed over to safety, should he keep it back for someone else to use, and leave it, therefore, on dry and high ground? This is the way I have taught Dhamma (the dharma), for crossing, not for keeping. Cast aside even right states of mind, monks, let alone wrong ones, and remember to leave the raft behind.
Since the Buddha offered this advice nearly three millenia ago, there have been many crossings, and many rafts left behind. In viewing these rafts today, one has a range of possible interpretive approaches. One could illuminate the raft’s form and structure, or the origins of the materials with which it was built. One might trace its history as it was, inevitably, brought to the city from its resting place by the shore. One could discuss its transformation as the constituent parts of grass and branches were dismantled and later refashioned into other material forms. One could describe its disintegration through disuse.
Or, one could consider the raft in light of its purpose as conceived by its builders; as a vehicle for crossing. Works of art, like literary expressions of the Buddhist teachings, were intended to guide practitioners from the suffering of mundane existence (samsara) to the sublime shores of spiritual liberation (nirvana). The artists’ resources–form and color–were shaped and brushed into images of enlightenment, inspired by the experiences of mystics.
Among the most compelling legacies of Buddhist art, mandala may be translated as “sacred assembly.” Although artists have frequently interpreted the mandala as a circle (for a circle inherently conveys the principles of wholeness, completion, and unity which a mandala has come to signify), mandalas have traditionally been rendered in the form of semi-circle, a corner, a triangle, a temple, and even as the human body.2 As Mallman has observed, in its broadest definition mandala simply refers to any “sacrificial area,” its form reflecting the particular sacrificial rite undertaken.
Writing. – Writing was not introduced until the 7th century. Notched sticks (shing-chram) and knotted cords were in current use, but the latter contrivance is only faintly alluded to in the Tibetan records, while of the other there are numerous examples. No mention is anywhere made of a hieroglyphical writing, but on the eastern frontier the medicine-men or tomba of the Moso have a peculiar pictorial writing, which is known in Europe from two published MSS. (in Journ. Roy. Asiatic Soc., 1885, vol. xvii.); though apparently now confined solely to purposes of witchcraft, it perhaps contains survivals of a former extensive system superseded by the alphabetic writing introduced from India. According to tradition – a tradition of which the ,details are still open to criticism – the alphabet was introduced from India by Tonmi, a lay Tibetan minister who was sent to India in 632 by King Srong-btsan to study the Sanskrit language and Buddhist literature. Tonmi introduced the modified Sanskritic ” writing in thirty characters ” (already detailed under Language and six of which do not exist in Sanskrit) in two styles – the ” thick letters ” or ” letters with heads ” (u-ch’en), now commonly used in printed books, and the half-cursive ” cornered letters,” so called from their less regular heads. The former are traditionally said to have been derived from the Landza character. The Landza of Nepal, however, is certainly not the origin of the Tibetan letter, but rather an ornamental development of the parent letter. The close resemblance of the Tibetan characters ” with heads ” to the Gupta inscriptions of Allahabad shows them to have been derived from the monumental writing of the period; and various arguments appear to show that the other Tibetan letters came from the same Indian character in the style in which it was used in common life. The Tibetan half-cursive was further developed into the more current ” headless ” (u-med) characters, of which there are several styles.
Some of its rulers send also tribute missions to Peking. For convenience of classification we may include in Khamdo a long strip of country extending along the northern border of the Lhasa territory of Lhorong jong and Larego as far as Tengri Nor, and bounded to the north by the Dang-la mountains, which is designated by Tibetans as Gyade or ” the Chinese province.” This strip of country has its: own native chiefs, but is’ under the control of a high Manchu officer stationed at Lhasa, known colloquially as the ” superintendent of savage tribes.” (3) The third political division of Tibet is ZI (written Dbus), meaning ” Central.” It includes Lhasa and a large number of outlying districts in south-eastern Tibet, such as Po, Pemakoichen, Zayul. The pastoral or Dokpa tribes, north and north-east of Tengri Nor, are also under its rule. (4) The fourth division of Tibet, called Tsang, includes all south-west Tibet from the Lhasa or Central province to the Indian frontier as far as Lake Manasarowar. (5) The fifth division, called Ndri (Mngah-ris) by the Tibetans or Hundesh by the Indians, who call the inhabitants Huniyas, comprises the whole country around the sources and along the upper course of the Indus and the Sutlej, and also all north-western Tibet generally, as far as Ladak and the border of Kashmir. Tsang and Nari are under the rule of Lhasa, all the high civil and military authorities in these provinces holding their offices from it. These five provinces, however, do not include the elevated steppes of Tsaidam (extending between the Kuen-lun and the Altyn Tagh or Nan Shan ranges), inhabited by a mixed race of marauding people, Tunguts and Mongols. Yet Tsaidam is geographically but a northern extension of the great Tibetan plateau, and in most of its essential physical features it is more closely allied to the Chang-t’ang of the south than to the great sandy depressions of Chinese Turkestan or Mongolia on the north.